The Kennedy Center

Concerto in D major for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 61

About the Work

Portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven when composing the Missa Solemnis Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven
© Peter Laki

Two years after moving from his native Bonn to Vienna, the 24-year-old Beethoven met a violin prodigy ten years his junior named Franz Clement.  The boy had already toured much of Europe, performed in London under Haydn, and earned the admiration of many important musicians on the continent.  He carried with him an album that was signed by many of the aristocrats, musicians, and officials he had come in contact with during his travels.  Beethoven, a former child prodigy himself, wrote the following in Clement's memory book:

Dear Clement,

Proceed along the path which you have hitherto trodden so splendidly and so gloriously.  Nature and art vie in making you one of the greatest artists.  Follow both, and you need not fear that you will fail to reach the great--the greatest goal on earth to which the artist can attain.  Be happy, my dear young friend, and come back soon, so that I may hear again your delightful, splendid playing.


                                      Wholly your friend

                                      L. v. Beethoven (in the service of

                                      His Excellency the Elector of Cologne)   

Clement later went on to become the conductor of the Theater an der Wien in Vienna.  His musical memory was legendary and gave rise to many fantastic stories.  According to one of them, he once prepared a piano score of Haydn's Creation after hearing it performed several times, with only a libretto, no full score, to help him.  He was always a great champion of Beethoven's music:  he was involved in the production of the original Fidelio in the autumn of 1805 and was the concertmaster at the first public performance of the Third Symphony in the same year.                

It seems, then, that Clement was not as unworthy of Beethoven's Violin Concerto as some have later thought.  He may not have been above such stunts as playing pieces with "reversed violin" (the instrument held upside down)-something he did the very same night he premiered the Beethoven.  Yet by all accounts he was an excellent artist, widely praised for the gracefulness and tenderness of his playing as well as for his extraordinary technical skills.  Although his fame was eventually to decline and he was to die in poverty in 1842, in 1806 he must have been at the height of his powers.

One wonders what this not insignificant artist thought when he first saw the manuscript of Beethoven's Violin Concerto with the punning inscription "Concerto par Clemenza pour Clement primo Violino e direttore al theatro a Vienna."  Was it really on the day of the first performance?  As best as we can know 217 years later, the work was not finished until the last possible moment and Clement sight-read it at the concert (which, by the way, also included a performance of the "Eroica" Symphony led by Beethoven).  We will never know how the concerto sounded under the circumstances, and that may even be a good thing.  The critics, at any rate, gave mixed reviews.  As one of them wrote: "The judgment of connoisseurs is unanimous; the many beauties of the piece must be conceded, but it must also be admitted that the continuity is often completely broken and that the endless repetitions of certain commonplace passages might easily become tedious to the listener....It is to be feared that if Beethoven continues upon this path he and the public will fare badly."

One thing that may have helped Clement find his way through the new work is that at least certain passages must have been somewhat familiar.  Clement (himself a composer) had written his own violin concerto (also in D major), which was premiered about a year and a half before the Beethoven.  In his monograph on the Beethoven Violin Concerto, Robin Stowell has examined this entirely forgotten work and found that some of the passagework in the Beethoven Concerto is closely modelled after Clement's piece.  This shows that Beethoven went to great lengths to accommodate his friend's playing style, using some of Clement's favorite playing techniques, and showing him in the process how much more could be gotten out of those techniques.

The new concerto went unappreciated for a long time, despite the fact that the composer and pianist Muzio Clementi persuaded Beethoven to arrange it as a piano concerto, which Beethoven proceeded to do.  Although the concerto is too violinistic to work well on the piano, Clementi would hardly have proposed such an arrangement if it had not made some business sense to him.  But there were apparently no performances of the piano version during Beethoven's lifetime, and only a few not very successful ones of the original.  The longest and probably the most difficult violin concerto written to date, it was awaiting the exceptional artist who could uncover all its beauties.  It was the 13-year-old Joseph Joachim who finally brought the work to triumph at a concert given in London under Mendelssohn (1844), who wrote his own celebrated Violin Concerto the very same year.  Since then, the world has never tired of the composition, which soon became known as the "Queen of Violin Concertos."

Clement's violin concerto was by no means Beethoven's only model in his Violin Concerto.  It has long been known that Beethoven was strongly influenced by the composers of the French violin school.  This school, founded by the Italian-born Giovanni Battista Viotti (1755-1824), was continued by virtuosos such as Rodolphe Kreutzer (1766-1831) and Pierre Rode (1774-1830). 

In the end, though, Beethoven's concerto is a masterpiece like no other: the borrowed details were inserted into a completely new context.  The unique Olympian serenity the work radiates is all Beethoven, as are the dramatic outbursts that temporarily cloud the happy atmosphere.

On the whole, the Violin Concerto is one of the happiest works Beethoven ever wrote. The first, dream-like entry of the solo violin, evolving into a mini-cadenza after the orchestral exposition, is a case in point.  So is the beautiful second theme, presented both in the major and in the minor modes.  This theme seems to be reserved entirely for the orchestra, and the solo violin never gets to play it in full until the very end, after the cadenza.  Then, at last, the soloist makes the most of this delightful melody and takes it from the lowest register of the instrument to the highest.  The simple and songlike style of performance is gradually altered by the addition of virtuoso scales and passages, and the volume rises to a powerful fortissimo to close the movement.

The second-movement Larghetto is in G major and never leaves its home tonality, a quite unusual circumstance that explains the exceptional restfulness that pervades the movement.  It is a set of free variations on a quiet, meditative theme.  At the end, there is a bridge leading into the third-movement Rondo without a pause.

It used to be rumored that the first theme of the Rondo finale was written not by Beethoven but by Franz Clement.  Whether or not that is true, the melody certainly provides a splendid starting point for a light-hearted and vivacious movement, whose cheerful dance rhythms (in 6/8 time) continue a time-honored classical Rondo tradition while introducing many individual touches in the elaboration of the model.  The central episode in G minor, in which the solo violin engages in a dialogue with the solo bassoon, is especially haunting.  The ending of the movement is a typical Beethovenian joke: a pianissimo recapitulation of the theme is interrupted by two fortissimo chords, and the work is suddenly over.